Does being a Cultural Chameleon threaten who you really are?

2 minute read

Norma McCaig, a pioneer in raising awareness of the issues faced by TCKs, talked about ‘cultural chameleons’ who take on the colours of their social surroundings to gain acceptance whilst maintaining a different core identity. Until her death in 2008 Norma worked with global companies preparing employees and their families for overseas assignments, continuously championing the benefits of living life across cultures.

The primary tool that Norma identified that she thought TCKs use to survive frequent changes of culture, was adaptability. Not everyone has it. This is where the idea of the cultural chameleon originates, amongst a community that can observe and assimilate cultural differences quickly, at least on the surface, and switch languages, styles, appearance, and practices in order to try to blend into the cultural background to a greater or lesser degree. In this way, TCKs camouflage themselves against feeling, or being identified as being, ‘out of place’. Cultural adaptability clearly has huge benefits, not least that TCKs are often far better able to be socially agile, and accept the ways and attitudes of others.

Cultural adaptability and social agility bring challenges, as well, however. Adapting to be one of the crowd may make TCKs appear withdrawn or even detached. Neither might they be able to understand a new culture to the depth necessary to make them really fit in, and getting cultural details wrong can risk highlighting their differences and exaggerate a sense of misalignment. Moving between cultures and adjusting to their differences can also affect a TCK’s own basic value system, meaning in the worst case that they don’t know who they really are.

Perhaps the thing to remember is that cultural adaptability is a truly valuable characteristic, but that underneath the TCK is the same person they have always been with new experiences adding depth and texture to their character, but not necessarily changing their fundamental nature and core beliefs.